This weekend CIRM grantees at StemCells Inc made a splash at the annual meeting of the International Spinal Cord Society. They reported that two people with spinal cord injuries in a clinical trial had regained some ability to feel touch and heat.
The company is testing injections of stem cells into the damaged region of the spinal cord. So far, they’ve only tested the cells in three people in a trial that will eventually include 12.
There are a lot of caveats to keep in mind before getting too excited about these results. First, these results were reported at a meeting. What that means is that the data haven’t been reviewed by other scientists and published in a journal, and other scientists may not agree with the company’s interpretation. Also, the data they report pertains to just three people. Given that some people do spontaneously regain some sensation after spinal cord injuries the scientists will need to see results in many more people before they can be confident that it’s the cells and not a combination of time and good luck that are responsible for the improvements.
That said, it’s still exciting to see even a hint that the cells could help some people. I have friends who are confined to wheelchairs due to spinal cord injuries and I know that for them, even small improvements in sensation could make a world of difference in their lives.
A story in New Scientist quotes Stephen Huhn of StemCells Inc:
“The sensory gains, first detected at three months post-transplant, have now persisted and evolved at six months after transplantation,” says Huhn. “We clearly need to collect much more data to demonstrate efficacy, but our results so far provide a strong rationale to persevere with the clinical development of our stem cells for spinal injury,” he says.
“We need to keep monitoring these patients to see if feeling continues to affect lower segments of their bodies,” says Huhn. “These are results after only six months, and we will follow these patients for many years.”
The trial being conducted by StemCells Inc is based on research by Aileen Anderson and Brian Cummings at the University of California, Irvine. Both have received CIRM grants to develop this potential therapy. Recently, StemCells Inc received a CIRM disease team award to test the approach in people with a different kind of spinal cord injury (a summary of that project is here).
This story is a great example of science moving from very basic research, like what Anderson and Cummings were carrying out, to clinical trials in patients. It’s also timely, given that at this week’s meeting our governing board will be voting on a new round of Basic Biology Awards and on Disease Team II awards – funding both the basic research that leads to new therapy ideas and the teams of researchers who make those therapies a reality (details about how to attend or listen in to the meeting are here).
We have more information on our website about all CIRM awards targeting spinal cord injury: Spinal Cord Injury fact sheet.